For years, Iraqi Kurds have had a cozy relationship with Washington, building up a reservoir of goodwill across the government and on Capitol Hill. But in the ultimate test, as Iraqi Kurdistan went to the polls Monday to vote in an independence referendum, Washington pulled out all the stops to discourage the vote, fearing it would tear at Iraqi unity and hamper the fight against the Islamic State.
Iraqi Kurds were predicted to vote overwhelmingly for independence Monday in a non-binding referendum which Baghdad decried as illegal and that spooked much of the international community. In Erbil, the capital of the northern region, Kurds crowded into polling stations wearing traditional dress and hoisting the government’s sun-crested flag. One man broke into the Kurdish anthem, cheered by the crowd.
Though votes will not be completely tallied until Tuesday, turnout was predictably high — roughly 72 percent when polls closed at 7pm. Those close to the process expected it to be heavily in favor of independence. “I’d say around 75 to 80 percent affirmative,” said Brendan O’Leary, an American advisor to the Kurdish government working on the referendum.
Pro-independence Kurdish leaders struck a familiar tone, taking aim at what they see as a forced marriage of convenience with Baghdad.
“Unity cannot be imposed. It has to be voluntary,” Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told Foreign Policy. “We are not bluffing. We are trying to secure a better life for future generations.”
Long an aspiration of Iraqi Kurdish nationalists who chafed under decades of what they called heavy-handed rule from Baghdad, the referendum came amid a backdrop of ominous statements.
Both Iran and Turkey, which have their own Kurdish populations, threatened the Iraqi Kurds over the vote. Iran cancelled flights into Iraqi Kurdistan, at the request of Baghdad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish troops were at the Iraqi border, and he also seemed to threaten to cut off Kurdish oil exports, which have to pass through a Turkish port.
Baghdad, for its part, essentially called for the international boycott of Kurdish crude, while the Iraqi parliament requested Iraqi troops be sent north to areas disputed with Kurdistan.
Despite regional animosity, however, many Kurds went to the polls believing that after decades of suffering and loyalty to Washington that America would be supporting the Kurds’ bid for statehood.
“For my nation this is a victory of 100 years of fighting and claiming our rights,” said Zaito Sayid Qahar, after casting his ‘yes’ vote. “I hope the U.S. and the international community — if they don’t stand with us, at least don’t stand against us.”
But Washington warned Erbil in no uncertain terms not to hold the referendum, threatening that it might destroy any chance of a U.S.-supported negotiated solution to years of wrangling between Kurds and the central government.
“If this referendum is conducted, it is highly unlikely that there will be negotiations with Baghdad, and the above international offer of support for negotiations will be foreclosed,” the State Dept. said in a statement last week, just days before the vote.
After polls closed Monday, another sharply worded statement said that the U.S. was “deeply disappointed” that the KRG decided to go ahead with the vote, but said that the relationship between the two governments would not change.
U.S. resistance to the referendum runs counter to long-entrenched sympathy in Washington for the KRG’s cause, a sentiment sharpened by the repeated suffering of the Kurdish people — and helped perhaps by $1.5 million spent on lobbying and public relations in the last three years.
Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villages in 1988, and viciously put down a Kurdish uprising just after the 1991 Gulf War, creating empathy in Washington for the beleaguered people. In recent years, that’s only been strengthened by Kurdish forces’ role in fighting the terrorists of the Islamic State.
“There’s a kind of instinctual support for the Kurds within parts of the government,” said Dennis Ross, a former special assistant on the Middle East to President Obama. “There’s a recognition that they struggled for a long time, paid a terrible price, and were oftentimes put in a position where they were treated as pawns in a larger game.”
But those friendly feelings have collided with a host of factors that led Washington, like Iraq, Turkey, and many other countries, to discourage Kurdish dreams of independence at this moment.
Even though U.S. policy makers in the past sometimes flirted with the idea of breaking up Iraq into three parts, successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have insisted on a unified Iraq — meaning that Erbil and Baghdad were condemned to work together.
“The idea of the unitary state, with a strong central government, is one thing that has always guided American foreign policy toward Iraq,” said Ross.
This view dates back to the “one Iraq” policy that emerged after the U.S invasion in 2003. While the 2005 Iraqi constitution allows for a measure of autonomy in different parts of the country, American decisionmakers were wary of diverting too much power away from Baghdad, lest regional competitors, particularly Iran, gain undue influence.
The Trump administration echoed this policy Monday. “We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS, and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday.
U.S. officials fear that the referendum vote would further undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. He is already relatively unpopular within the country and has been struggling to fight off Islamic State terrorists with one hand and Iranian influence with the other.
U.S. officials are also worried that the referendum, and heightened political tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, could derail the anti-Islamic State coalition, even though Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been among the most effective in battling the group.
“The Combined Joint Task Force priority remains the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon said during a press conference last week. “The current discussions about the Kurdish referendum have been a distraction in the pursuit of a common goal.”
Dillon noted that there was unconfirmed speculation that the Iraqi government had held back in attacking the Islamic State stronghold of Hawija in order to maintain leverage against the KRG.
There’s another reason U.S. officials are wary of the independence vote: It threatens to divide not just Iraq, but Iraqi Kurdistan itself, where the referendum comes amid heightened political tension between dueling political factions.
For some Kurds, the referendum championed by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is not as much a bid for Kurdish independence as for dominance by Barzani’s political party. For both proponents, and opponents, the stakes are high.
“I think [Barzani] really wants to say that he brought his country to the eve of independence. It’s an issue of politics and legacy,” said Marina Ottaway, a fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on Kurdish politics.
But Iraqi Kurdistan is a house divided. “The Iraqi Kurds are badly fragmented,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is at loggerheads with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — and some Kurds worry independence from Baghdad would mean dominance by their political rivals.
“Different factions of the PUK are in no way disposed to independence, because for them that would be the sanction for total KDP dominance,” he said. “It wasn’t that many years ago that there was a pretty significant Kurdish civil war,” referring to internecine clashes in the 1990s that left thousands dead.
Rabun Maroof, a member of the Kurdish Parliament and spokesman for the ‘No for Now’ campaign, worries there could be another. He supports an independent Kurdish state, but says now is not the time.
“Everyone knows that without the support of the international community, and especially the United States, it’s impossible to establish an independent country here,” says Maroof.
But Maroof’s concerns go beyond the lack of foreign backing. For two years, Kurdish politics have been frozen because of tensions between the main parties and deep disagreement over the future of the presidency. Barzani’s term should have ended in August 2015, but he has claimed an extension. Now some Kurds see in his campaign for sovereignty an attempt to distract from his political failings and put down political rivals for good.
Before the Kurds of northern Iraq vote on independence, Maroof said, they need to resolve those lingering political differences.
“It could lead to another civil war in Kurdistan,” he said.
Rebecca Collard contributed reporting from Erbil.
Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images